By Vidya Pradhan
Is there a market that will pay to watch Indian TV online? That is the crux of the problem S.G. Sangameswara( Sangam) and his team at GluTV are trying to figure out.
Despite the popularity of online videos on sites such as YouTube, television online is still a nascent idea, thanks to the stranglehold that networks impose on their content. Some shows are available, but watching on the computer is as much a matter of surfing between channels as it is on the television. A few players like Hulu, Joost and Miro have attempted to jump start the idea of the aggregated provider but apart from Hulu, which offers shows from Fox and NBC, the content is hardly mainstream.
And worse, they are all free to the subscriber and are ad-supported to generate revenue.
Luckily, the Indian American audience is primed to pay for content, even when there are ads galore. We can choose to subscribe to Dish or Direct TV, and pay a small fortune for a package of channels that are slightly tape-delayed from their original show times in India. There are still limitations – not all channels are available in each, (though Dish is getting closer to full coverage with its recent addition of the STAR TV family) and changing your mind about what channels you would like to watch involves extricating yourself out of a murky multiple-year contract.
Online though, is a different story. The one place that the online subscription model has been somewhat successful has been on sites that stream cricket matches. Other than that, the choices so far have been sites like watchindia.tv, which stream from India for a subscription that is very similar to the satellite providers or pirated shows put up by fly-by-night operators using BitTorrent.
GluTV is hoping to change that. In some ways, the model is akin to Hulu. Shows are not streamed live from India, so there is an opportunity to make the ads more relevant to the viewing public, which should make room for lower subscription costs.
“The core idea,” says Sangam, “is to get licensed Indian net-tainment content and make it available to the end user in the best environment possible. GluTV is aiming to be the destination of choice for Indians outside India.” He promises no pop-ups and the utmost emphasis on user security and privacy.
The snag, as usual, is content. Sangam’s partner in India, Ravi Ratan Arora, is in charge of contract negotiation with the various channels. So far, GluTV, which incorporated in October 2007, offers near-complete range of Zee channels and a bunch of movies, as does watchindia.tv. Talks with other channels are ongoing. There are plans to have hundreds of movies and music videos on a pay-per-view basis.
Another sticky issue is the reluctance of the average Indian viewer to pay for content online. “It is a challenge,” admits Sangam, “but we hope there is a segment of the audience that values convenience and quality.”
For now, GluTV is forging on, offering high resolution TV with channels priced as low as $3.99 per month. The range is still limited but the quality is excellent and a 10-day free trial gives you’re the opportunity to try it out for yourself.
“Online television is an idea whose time has come,” says Sangam. “There is time shifting (watching shows on demand) and place shifting (watching shows away from home) and GluTV is well poised to capitalize on this phenomenon.”
Do Indian TV channels share that view? While GluTV has seen its subscriber base steadily increasing even at this early stage, diversity and completeness of content will ultimately decide whether it is here for the long haul. There are plans to include live streaming of games, movies with a social networking component and community and education based shows. The technology is there, but will the deals come through for the content? There is enormous inertia to be overcome on the part of the mainline channels like STAR and Sony to make an online offering worthwhile.
Breaking the hegemony of the satellite providers is an attractive thought. Also, for customers in places satellite is not available, watching their favorite shows online is a great alternative. The trick is to get all the content providers on board, and GluTV thinks it can make it happen.